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See What Is Said, Research Note

Camille Llobet

Sign* has the particularity of being a language that cannot be set by writing. It is directly traced in a space of speech in three dimensions, called “signing space.” This spatial dimension generates a syntactic structure closer to film editing than to the linear constructions of verbal languages. In her description of the orchestra, Noha El Sadwy uses the zoom, the alternation of shots and the dolly shot as forms of enunciations. As if it took place through the focal length of a camera, the viewpoint of what is said is directed and variable. The visual nature of the language and its proximity with the real offers the descriptive genre a particularly fertile invention potential and experimentation field: the description of a concrete form is not reduced to a simple pantomime; the language extracts characteristic features and portrays an image of the real in just a few gestures, detailing its appearance by means of different linguistic tools. Several things can be said simultaneously by combining the configuration, orientation and placement of the hands; the amplitude and rhythm of the movements; the position of the shoulders and head; facial expression; the direction in which the eyes look and the position of the lips and tongue. The face’s mimics – more semantic than affective – form the prosodic contours of Sign (similar to the inflection and rhythm of speech); the signs expressed by the hands would be incomprehensible without these facial precisions. Much more than the modularities of a voice, they reveal the orator’s personality and paradoxically give this silent language a musicality.
Profoundly deaf, Noha El Sadawy perceives nothing of the music and must take other paths to seize what is being played opposite her. Her eyes sweep the enormous group of some 80 musicians in order to capture a few details, which her hands, her body, her face say in time, building the image of the sound. From time to time, her eyes glance over the orchestra, list positions, go from one musician to another, try to perceive, lack precision. She offers a somewhat flat image, stutters, then suddenly captures, incarnates a secondary movement, a general momentum, a particular expression, a modification of the vibrations. Gradually she builds her description, returns to the elements perceived and sketched, details them, combines them, gives them meaning.
According to the physician and philosopher Israel Rosenfield, the brain invents what it perceives: movement creates a world of disorganized and unstable visual, tactile and auditory sensations based on which a coherent sensorial environment must be built. The brain does this by inventing an entire palette of perceptions: a series of mental constructions that we can see, hear and feel when we look at, listen to or touch something. This performance is a poetic test of this hypothesis on the functioning of perception: for the signing deaf person, the orchestra is a confused image, a host of movements and variations in expressions. Faced with this chaotic environment, it was necessary to use language to organize a sparse perception.

* Noha El Sadawy speaks French Sign Language, which is her native tongue. For her, written French is only a second language. Each country has its own Sign, they are languages without writing that develop locally, through the people who speak them and the diversity of cultures. They are also young, rapidly evolving languages that have been subject to historical constraints: Sign was prohibited in Europe for a century (Milan Congress, 1880) because it was perceived by hearing people as hindering the integration of the deaf into society and that speech, given by God, was considered the only possible communication method. Little known by the hearing world, Sign has always raised major questions on perception, language and thought. From philosophers in antiquity to contemporary neuroscientists, deafness has always been the subject of highly political debates on human nature. Thought and culture are dependent on our relationship to language and the signing deaf comprise a genuine “ethnic group” within a dominant culture. What happens when a minority approaches the real through a language that has a system that is completely different from verbal languages? What is a language and a thought without words?